Grackle & Sun

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Paleo: 365

This past Sunday marked the 1 year point for my paleo experiment.  I would say “Woot!”, but since I see this as my new norm and plan on eating this way forever, it would be a little silly.  Like giving a cheer after brushing your teeth or making your bed.  Well, if I ever made my bed, I might actually give a cheer, so that’s a bad example.  Lol.  My mother would weep if she read that.  She did teach me better, but I rebel.  And digress.

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Clearly I like this Paleo thing a whole lot.  It’s pretty amazing and has been instrumental in turning my health around.  Today I just want to hit on the key points I’ve learned while eating Paleo this last year:

1.  The cleaner your diet, the stronger your body’s reactions when you stray.   It seems a little counter-intuitive.  You’d think that by giving your body a break from highly processed, sugar-laden, additive-filled, inflammation causing, gut destroying foods, you would help strengthen your system so that it could better tolerate the occasional powdered donut or bag of peanut M & Ms.  But it doesn’t work that way.  Turns out your body likes feeling good, and when you put bad fuel into the tank, it is more than happy to let you know you done wrong.  And punish you for it.  With joint pain, edema, bloating, headaches, breakouts, hives, sinus congestion, wheezing, diarrhea, constipation, and all manner of gassiness.  The body is fantastically creative with the myriad ways it can hate a bagel.   If you’re going to stray from the path, better make sure it’s for the best meal of your life.  Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.

2.  Sugar.  If this year taught me anything, it is to pay attention to one’s sugar intake.  It effects everything from energy levels to immune functioning to gut flora.  It seems so innocent, but sugar really, really, really is completely and utterly responsible for so very much of ALL THE BAD happening in your body.  Did you see how many unnecessary modifiers I used to emphasize this?  Here’s the thing:  I have a monster sweet tooth.  This sweet tooth, unlike what many Paleo gurus promised, has not gone away in my year of very strict Paleo eating.  So learning to live with this whole sugar issue is important to me (and to the happiness of everyone around me).  I have to find a balance.  What I’ve learned through many much reading is that fructose in particular is the form that is harmful.  And although sugar intake should be moderated no matter what kind you’re ingesting, some forms are better than others.  But always, always in moderation.  If you read point #1 above, you’ve probably guessed already that the cleaner you’re diet, the more moderate your body’s idea of moderation.  So, what was a moderate amount of sugar intake in the first few months of my Paleo diet is now too much, and I’m wrestling with tapering off my sweet binges even more.  Wish me luck.

3.  Legumes.  They really do mess with the gut.  Lectin.  Who knew?  When I started Paleo, this was the one category that I had a hard time believing was actually causing any problems.   I was skeptical.  I grew up eating rice and beans like most people in the States grow up eating mac n’ cheese.   But I was good, and I cut out legumes completely for the first 6 months.  Then I reintroduced peanuts back into my diet.  And then chickpeas (in the form of hummus).  I had my mom’s rice and beans once as a treat, and I ate some Korean gochujang (soy based) a handful of times in the last month or so.  And you know what?  Although legumes are delicious, they are hell on my system.  I never would have suspected any of this if I hadn’t tested it on myself.  And so we refer back to point #1 yet again.  I’m not saying I’ll never eat them again, but it will be a rare treat for sure.

4.  Macronutrient needs are changeable.  Fat especially was incredibly important in helping maintain my body temperature in cold weather—-and as a person with hypothyroidism, this can be so hard to do.   In recent years, I’ve worn long johns under my clothes from October to May.  But this year, I was really happy to have made it through winter with more cold tolerance than I’ve had in years.  I stayed warm, which is really saying a lot.  And I learned at the 6 month mark that unlike the rest of the dairy food group, butter causes no problems for me whatsoever.  That is reason for a WOOT! if ever there was one.   I have a good understanding now that protein is the core food for giving the body long-lasting, stable energy.  It’s common knowledge, I know.  But it’s one thing to read it and another thing entirely to experience it.  But what was most interesting to me was finding the right balance of carb intake.  No matter what anybody says, Paleo is not meant to be another low-carb Atkins diet.  Carbs are important.   Sweet potatoes are great for boosting carb intake—just be careful not to base your diet entirely on carbs rather than greens, veg, and protein.  Your waistline will tell you quickly if you’re overdoing it.  Lol.

5.  Water.  I’m going to state the bleeding obvious now:  The body doesn’t work right when it’s not properly hydrated.  What is not bleeding obvious is exactly how much water intake is necessary to be properly hydrated and just how quickly the body gives signals that it needs water when intake has been inadequate.  Signals that have nothing to do with thirst.  You have to pay attention.  Again, as mentioned in point #1, the ways that this translates in the body are many and varied.  The subtle symptoms of low-level dehydration are much more noticeable after you’ve started to feel better in general.   After all, when you ache all the time, what’s one more discomfort?  But when you feel good, it’s much easier to pinpoint the cause of dis-ease.  There was a time when I would have considered being so sensitive to everything as a weakness, but now I see it as a really amazing, fine-tuned diagnostic skill.  It’s very cool to be that in tune with your own body.  It is useful—but only if you listen to it.

6.  Exercise.  Bring the ass, and the mind will follow.  My mantra.  Moving around is crucial to health and well-being—both physical and mental.  It is absolutely one of the most fundamental aspects of the Paleo template.  You can eat the cleanest diet ever, but if you don’t use your body—-if you don’t move it and lift heavy things and run and play—-you will never achieve true wellness.  I also learned that if you don’t maintain regular exercise, the body reverts back to it’s old ways very, very quickly.  If you take a week off, prepare to hurt a little when you get back to it.  If you do like I did, and get all anxious and depressed and don’t exercise for, oh, 4 months, prepare to basically start over from scratch.  Especially if you are on the far end of your 30’s.  Ahem.

7.  Greens.  You need ’em.  By the bale.  Paleo diets can vary a lot—some people eat tons of meat, some only eat fish, some are near vegetarian.  But the one thing that needs to be a dietary focus no matter how you eat Paleo is the intake of a wide variety of dark, leafy greens.  Greens are nutritionally dense and supply vitamins, minerals, and fiber that you’re just not going to get with any other foods.   I crave them.  I daydream about grazing on kale.  It’s a little (or a lot) weird, but I think it’s my body’s way of making sure I get all my micronutrients.  Clever brain.  Which brings us to…

8.  The gut is the second brain.  If it doesn’t work right, not much else in your body will work at it’s best either.  And it absolutely effects mood and thought patterns.  So, if you want to be healthy and happy, you gotta have a healthy gut.  Everything I’ve been reading points to the fact that excess sugar in the diet feeds harmful bacteria in the gut.  This negative balance of intestinal flora not only messes with basic digestive habits, but it often leads to inflammation of the intestinal lining, and therefore an inability to properly absorb nutrients and to uptake serotonin.  It can also lead to leaky gut syndrome which is a big deal if you have any autoimmune issues like I do, because it causes further negative autoimmune responses and inflammation in the body.  I think the importance of this point cannot be stressed enough.  The gut is the key.

9.  Keeping it simple.   The further I go on this journey, the simpler I want my food.  Fresh ingredients prepared with as little fuss as possible.  That’s what I crave.  I don’t know if it’s a psychological thing or a physical thing or both.  But it has been a persistent theme this year.  With the exception of the occasional paleo brownies, I’m not interested in recreating “normal” food with Paleo versions.  First of all, I don’t like cooking that much.  Second of all, a lot of those recipes (much like in the raw food diet) are really nut-heavy, and it’s just not very good for you to eat that many nuts.   I do think, in part, that it’s helpful to eat simply when having to weed out food intolerances—not only from a practical standpoint, but also because it is tiring to spend so much time thinking about what you can or can’t eat.  Keeping things simple in the kitchen allow you to get on with your life outside of your food allergy/intolerance issues.   It feels really good to just get on with it.

10.  Fine tuning.  Your body’s needs change frequently, and it’s important to listen and respond accordingly to those needs.  What works in the winter probably won’t be good in the summer.   You might find yourself craving foods as they naturally come into season, but not want them otherwise.  That was me with apples this fall.  Normally, they make me feel sick, but this fall I couldn’t get enough of them.  I figure it might have had more than a little to do with the fact that they were in season locally.   As long as you listen to your body and respond accordingly, it all balances out.  Most importantly, let your body—not a dietary dogma—be your guide.

Future plans?  I still hope to experiment with some raw, cultured dairy.   I miss yogurt.   Strangely enough, I also miss oats.  A lot.  I’ve been reading about raw, sprouted oats, and I wonder how I’d respond…  Worth an experiment, yes?  Aside from these two things, I’m pretty happy.  I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything at all.  My main goal now is to lower my sugar (by which I mean honey) intake, eat simpler, more nutrient dense foods, make my own fermented/probiotic foods, drink more water, and buy a kettlebell.   A good plan.

Here’s to health, healing, and having the guts to heal your guts.  :D    It is so worth it.

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Paleo(ish): Month 3

Sunday marked month 3 of my Paleo(ish) diet experiment.  If you want to know more about what the Paleo template is, I highly recommend reading this excellent article on Fitbomb.   I would put a ton of Paleo links on my post, but he’s got them all on his.  It really is a very well written article.  Why Paleo?  Very simple.  I took up Paleo because my body happens to say NO to the same foods that Paleo says no to.  Giving my dietary “choices” a catchy name makes it easier to explain to people and strangely seems to make it more acceptable to them.  Why Paleo(ish)?  Two reasons.  First, because I’m hoping to modify the diet in the next year to include foods that are not technically allowed on the Paleo diet.  The second reason is a big one—I do not believe in all the tenets of the Paleo diet.

Is it nutritionally sound?  Yes, it absolutely can be if you eat a variety of nutritious whole foods and not just meat (as some people think you’re supposed to).  Is it scientifically sound?  Sometimes.  Depends on what author you read.  I’ve read some great, balanced and well researched articles and books, and I’ve also read some works where the author clearly has no understanding of human physiology.   It’s important to keep your critical thinking cap on when reading diet information.  There’s a lot of BS out there.   Is it historically sound?  No, I seriously doubt it.  Paleo is based on the belief (note, I didn’t say knowledge) that we are genetically adapted to eat a certain way because for millennia our Paleolithic ancestors did so.   Proponents believe that humans have not been able to evolve over the last 10,000 years (the Neolithic period after the advent of agriculture) to eat other types of foods such as grains and dairy.  Here are a few reasons why I take issue with these ideas:

1.  People ate the food that was available in their geographic location.  As you can imagine, this would lead to incredibly variable diets all over the world.  There cannot be one perfect way to eat for everybody.  Also, seasonal diets would require people to eat a diet which potentially varied widely in its macronutrient balance from season to season—sometimes being very protein or fat heavy, and sometimes very starch, veg, and carb heavy.  Humans, we’re adaptable.

2.  People who know about Paleolithic man, ie  anthropologists and archeologists, widely dispute the idea that Paleolithic man didn’t eat grains or starches.  There is evidence that goes back well before the 10,000 year mark of Neolithic man.  So that kind of chucks that whole grain-free, starch-free theory out the window…

3.  If Paleolithic man didn’t eat grain, then why on earth, when people settled down and started farming, did they say, “Hey, I know what we should grow—this stuff that we’ve never eaten before!”  That just doesn’t make any kind of sense.  Of course they would grow something that was at least somewhat familiar in their diet.

4.  Some Paleo diet proponents say that salt should not be used in the diet either, because Paleolithic man most likely did not harvest or mine salt.  This might be true, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad for you.  There are a lot of studies done to show that it’s not that big a deal if your eating moderate amounts of good salts.  Chris Kresser has a great write-up on this.

5.  While we can derive some amount of data from looking to the past to see what Paleolithic man ate, we cannot assume that this diet would be our optimal diet.  Yes, there are all kinds of lifespan charts and such being used to prove that Paleo man was healthier than the peoples that came in the following agricultural societies, but there are SO MANY factors at play that make oversimplifying this data dangerous—-the effects of living in massively larger population groups, living with animals, more sedentary lifestyles, diet limited by growing conditions… you see my point.  Do I think that eating a grain-based diet changed the health of people?  Yes.  But not necessarily as much initially as in the last 100 years—new research is showing that the grains we’re growing now bear little resemblance to the grains grown even 100 years ago—they now contain more gluten proteins than ever before.   Some scientists think this may be the reason for the increasing rates of Celiacs disease and people with gluten intolerances and autoimmune related diseases.   The point is, unless someone can prove that Paleolithic man had perfect health, free from disease, and that this can be chiefly attributed to their diet only, I’m not going to romanticize the way people ate 30,000 years ago.  They ate that way because that’s what there was to eat.  That does not translate into “we’re designed to eat that way”.

I don’t need my dietary lifestyle to have an agenda, and I certainly don’t need it to take on any dogmatic religious zealotry.  It’s food.  It’s fuel.  It should make us feel better, not worse.  It would be nice if it were simple, but interaction with other living organisms (ie, eating food) is complex.  While it’s tempting to get all earth goddess on this and think that all of Mother Nature’s bounty is wholesome and nourishing, it’s just not true.  Just about everything that you eat has both nutrients and toxins.  We have livers for a reason.  We cook, ferment, cure, and sprout foods for a reason.  No food is 100% perfect for us all the time.

So enough of the downside.  Here’s why I think Paleo(ish) is a good way to eat:

1.  It emphasizes eating fresh, whole, unprocessed foods.  On Paleo, there are no junk foods.  Not even pretend-healthy junk foods.   But a healthy diet is not just taking out the bad stuff.  In fact, I would argue that what is added into the diet is even more important that what is taken out of it.  There is a lot of evidence to show that many health issues are due to nutrient deficits.   Western diets are full of empty calories.  On Paleo, you eat very nutrient dense foods.  You give your body vitamins and minerals that are often severely lacking in a typical Western diet.  Of course you’re going to feel better eating this way!

2.  Paleo done right is not a diet.  It is a template for a lifelong way to eat healthy.

That’s it!  We could go into the whole need for healthy fats, and we could go round and round in circles about animal proteins, but I don’t want to.  The reason why I talk about the Paleo template (rather than diet) is because it is incredibly adaptable to your needs.  It can be higher protein or higher carb.  It can be mostly meat-based or mostly veg-based.  There is a lot of room for variations and tweaking to find what makes you feel best.   And while a lot of people have done a great job to make it super trendy, complicated, and to make money off of it, at it’s core it is pretty simple.   What it really is, is a springboard to better health.  At least that’s how I’m choosing to look at it.

The results?  I believe that it takes a few months to really start feeling the difference dietary changes can make, good or bad.  You can’t know in just a couple weeks if something is working for you or not.  Your body needs time to adjust.   Here’s my 3 month Paleo low-down:

For the first 2 months on Paleo, I felt mostly better, but I had a lot of digestive issues.  It was… disconcerting.  I mean, I hadn’t actually changed my diet that much.  So I thought.  My gut disagreed with this notion.  Also, my skin and sinuses got really, really dry.  Aside from these two issues, I felt great, so I decided to start reading up on trouble-shooting Paleo issues.  Turns out, I was dehydrated and in need of some probiotics.

I’m horrible at drinking enough water.  Horrible at it.  On my own, I might drink a couple glasses a day.  I just rarely feel thirsty.  What I’ve learned is that feeling thirsty in your mouth is one of the last signs of thirst that the body has.  When I ate a normal diet, my symptoms of dehydration were masked by all my other crappy diet symptoms.   Dry skin, dry sinuses, wheeziness and other bronchial symptoms, headaches, stiff muscles, sluggish digestion—all have to do with hydration.  On Paleo, I felt good enough to realize that something else was going on.  My water intake was too low.  As soon as I bumped it up, those symptoms went away.  But I really have to drink a lot—a minimum of 2 liters a day (which is a lot to me) to feel good.

The gut issues were related both to the water intake and to a need for beneficial bacteria.  I started eating kimchee and sauerkraut and drinking the occasional Good Belly juice, kombucha or KeVita, and all became right in the world.  Gut flora, it’s important.  Fermented foods are your friend.

I’ve continued dropping weight—I’m down to around 133 lbs now.   It’s important to note that I am not restricting my calories at all.  I don’t count them, I don’t think about it.  I just eat until I’m satisfied.   One of the great things about eating Paleo is that the foods you eat tend to be very filling and very satisfying.

Most importantly, I feel great.  My energy levels are very stable throughout the day.   I feel balanced.  I have very few cravings.  My autoimmune symptoms are super under control, and I’ve had only 2 mild migraines this whole time, both due to not drinking enough water.  This is a big huge deal and goes a long, long way to confirm my suspicions about the links between food intolerances and my health issues.   I am still avoiding caffeine almost entirely (a bit of chocolate being the only exception).  I’m also avoiding foods high in tyramines, although my worst offenders are knocked off the list by virtue of being Paleo(ish)—aged cheeses, aged and cured meats, soy products, breads, and red wine.  Some fruits and vegetables contain tyramine (olives, avocado, pineapple) but they haven’t caused any problems yet.   Caffeine and tyramines are major triggers for me.

What’s the plan now?  Well, I’ve been hardcore Paleo for 3 months now, and I want to give this another 3 months to establish a firm baseline before I start introducing any foods back into my diet.  Based on what I now know of gluten issues and autoimmune disease, I will never eat wheat again.  I’m cool with that.  But I’d like to be able to reintroduce occasional rice, buckwheat, and oats back into my diet.  I’m hesitant, however, because my blood sugar gets all jacked up when I eat grains.  Like a rollercoaster.  We’ll see.  I’d also like to add butter and eventually homemade raw milk yogurt or kefir back into my diet.  I think raw milk is good for a body.  We’ll wait and see if my body agrees.  Finally, I’d like to find out if I really have any issues with lectins or not.  It will be interesting to see what happens when I try lentils or chickpeas again.  It’s all a big experiment.  As long as it keeps working, I’ll keep eating this way.   If it stops working, I’ll reassess and tweak.

Another thing I’ve been reading up on is the GAPS diet, and think that this might be in my future at some point, specifically because of my autoimmune issues.   The GAPS diet is a very specific temporary diet that is based on the premise that many illnesses stem from gut issues resulting in poor nutrient absorption, leaky gut syndrome, autoimmune issues, and food allergies and intolerances.  The point of the diet then is to heal the gut so that eventually a normal healthy diet can be resumed.  This is done primarily by removing foods that digest into disaccharides which then feed harmful gut flora.  By starving the bad gut flora and also bolstering the good gut flora by taking serious probiotics, you create an environment which allows the gut lining to heal.     When the gut lining is healed (which takes a period of 1-2 years), then slowly foods can be reintroduced and digested properly.  A lot about this diet makes sense to me.  I love that it focuses on nutrient-dense foods.  But it is very labor intensive and expensive.  We’ll see where I am at the 6 month Paleo mark.  If GAPS still seems right then, I think I’ll give it a go.

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